Story by Jennifer Griego
I am 15 years old and have cystic fibrosis (CF). It is a genetic disease that I was born with. CF affects my lungs and many other organs including my digestive system, my pancreas and my sinuses. I have to do lung percussion treatments at least two-to-three times a day (five times when I am sick); take 30-40 pills a day, take five inhaled medications twice daily, and get eight hours of liquid nutrition through a tube into my stomach every night.
I started hunting with my dad when I was ten years old. Over the past six years, I have gone on a lot of hunts with him and some with my entire family. I only went on hunts that had somewhere I could stay with electricity - and everything else I would need for my disease treatments.
At the 2017 Wild Sheep Foundation convention, Kirstie Ennis, a wounded warrior, showed a video and gave a speech about her injuries and life challenges. During her speech, I started to cry. Her story made me very emotional because she was told she was going to die but she fought through it and survived, and through her perseverance and toughness, she was able to go hunting again a few weeks after the amputation of her leg. Several generous outfitters donated sheep hunts to her. This really touched me personally because a few weeks earlier I had found out that the average life expectancy of a person with CF is 37 years old. Reading that number scared me like it would have anybody else. I have always known that my life was being shortened by my disease, but reading that number made it all too real. So during Kirstie's speech, I got very emotional over the fact that I wasn't going to live long enough to do some of the things I wanted to do in my life. That night I talked to my parents and set the goal to physically and mentally challenge myself by being the first girl with CF to hunt the rugged and remote mountains in quest of the four North American Wild Sheep. I started training right after I got home from Reno. I got sick that weekend so my lung function was low and it was even harder to breathe. I started out hiking a mountain behind my house in Phoenix. I was coughing constantly and it was miserable. Several times I nearly threw up. The elevation there is a little over a thousand feet, so it was a good start, but after about two months I was able to hike that mountain multiple times and not cough at all. I was even able to run up and down without coughing. However, I knew I had to train at higher elevations and on steeper mountains. So my dad and I went to my cabin in the mountains to train as much as possible. I spent three weeks before the hunt training at anywhere from 8,000 to 11,000 feet elevation. It was very challenging and didn't get much easier with time, but I knew I was going to be hiking much longer and in much harder terrain than what I was training in. My lung function started at 54% and got all the way up to 65% during my training.
During the time when I was training, I was in a clinical trial of a new medicine. I was coughing up a lot of mucus and my lung function was increasing.
Training for this hunt involved many things. Not only did I have to hike mountains in high elevation to get my lungs and legs in shape, I also had to work on my shooting. I had gotten hit by my rifle scope a couple times, and so I hated shooting and when I did I would flinch terribly. The only time I ever wanted to shoot was when I was on an animal, and even then I struggled to pull the trigger. My dad helped me by making me dry fire hundreds of times. I got to where I was no longer lifting my head or even blinking my eye. Shooting steel targets from different positions up to 400 yards solidified my shooting preparation.
When the day came to leave for the hunt I was very excited, but it all seemed very surreal. After a long day of traveling we finally got to Whitehorse. My dad and I met Lincoln and Jim Tapp, and their camera guru Cooper at the hotel. Seeing them definitely made it become more real. We had dinner and talked about the hunt and how excited we all were. The next morning we left the hotel and went to the float plane dock; once we got everything weighed and packed into the plane, we left for base camp. We saw some sheep from the plane. It was amazing to see the animal that I was hunting for the first time in person. We got to base camp and unloaded everything into our room. Then I had to go through my bags and try to fit everything I could need into two duffel bags. My mom had done such a great job thinking of everything I could possibly need for this hunt, and packing took weeks to finalize. Now I had to put my medications and treatments into the duffel bag and make sure I had everything I could need for ten days. That was very scary because so many things could happen on that mountain, so making sure I had enough of everything was a struggle. This was also where I had to leave my lung vest and go without electricity for the first time in my life. We had lunch, shot the guns, then it was time to head off to spike camp by helicopter. Once we landed in spike camp, we met the guides and talked about what they had seen so far. After we got settled into our tents, we went out to look for sheep that had been seen earlier. We couldn't find them, so we went back to camp and had dinner. This hunt included many firsts for me, including sleeping in a tent and eating freeze-dried food. We all went to bed early, excited for opening day the next morning.
I woke up the next morning, and from the tent we saw three rams feeding towards the top of the mountain. One was a really young ram, but the other two were shooter rams! The biggest one was old and broomed off on the left side. We watched them for a while to see what they would do so we could make a plan. Once we thought we knew where they were going, we left camp, crossed a river and climbed up the mountain. Two of the guides stayed back to keep an eye on the rams. I am still not really sure what was going through my mind, but it didn't register that I was stalking these rams until one of the guides took out his rangefinder and told us the big ram was only 660 yards away. That's when what I was doing and where I was became real.
We snuck to within my shooting range, 400 yards, and waited, hoping he would work towards us. I was set up laying prone behind my 6.5 Creedmoor, across a valley from the ram, waiting for an opportunity. He had laid down facing away from us in the direction of his buddies, who were out of sight from us around a ledge. If he walked a few steps that way we would have to descend and re-climb the mountain to get a shot at him. So, my dad told me to take the shot as soon as he stood up.
After an hour, he finally rose. I knew then this was when I would get my first sheep. I took my shot when he stopped. I thought I missed, but it turned out that I had hit him in the front shoulder. I took three more shots and hit him each time; however, he still didn't go down. He went behind a rock out of sight. After 15 minutes, we carefully climbed towards him. All of a sudden I saw a flash of white and looked up to see my ram jump off a 12-foot cliff and roll down the mountain. It all happened so fast and we froze where we were and watched. Once he stopped rolling at the bottom of the mountain, I knew then that I had just killed my first North American sheep. I became emotional and began to cry. I slipped and slid hurriedly down to him. I picked up his horns. He was spectacular, and I was just in awe that I had been blessed with the opportunity to take such an amazing creature.
Almost miraculously, the entire day of the hunt it felt like I didn't have CF. It was as though God gave me a perfect day. I never coughed. I was never short of breath. It rained everywhere except where we were. My guide said I shot and looked like a sniper behind the rifle. The ram rolled almost all the way down the mountain to camp. We even had delicious ram backstrap grilled over an open fire for dinner! It was like a Hollywood movie. I have never been happier.
However, after that, the reality of CF returned with a vengeance. I had the worst stomach cramps I have ever had. I was up most of the night in severe pain. I was miserable. Ove the next few days I used all the medicines I had available, but the pain never fully went away until we got back to camp and I started eating regular food again. But nothing could take away the joy of my first successful sheep hunt.
When we were at camp before heading out to spike camp, the outfitter Griz Turner told me that most places on the property hadn't been named. So he said wherever I kill my ram they are going to officially name it after me. That was very exciting to hear and it meant a lot. After I shot my ram, one of the guides carved "Jen's Spot" into a rock while we were taking pictures. Also, when we got picked up by the helicopter, the pilot showed me that the camp I was just at was "Jen's Camp" in his GPS.
The night we got back to base camp, the cook had baked me a cake. It looked so cool because it had a beautiful decoration on it. She had stenciled a beautiful ram onto the cake with cocoa powder in celebration of my success! It was so inspiring to see how proud everyone was of me for this accomplishment. It was a dream come true and now I was officially kicked out of the WSF <1 Club.
I never thought that in my lifetime I would be able to go on a sheep hunt. It was something that I thought was impossible for me. I proved myself wrong, thank God. Now, I have one sheep down and three to go. Through this experience, I learned that some things may not be possible, but you'll never know until you try. Hard work and perseverance can make amazing things attainable. I am now able to say I successfully accomplished one of the most physical hunts in North America, and I did it with Cystic Fibrosis. I will be forever grateful to the people who helped make this dream possible. This experience will always be one of my greatest accomplishments.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of Wild Sheep, a Wild Sheep Foundation publication.